Building a Bond
Eight years ago, the idea of a New York City public high school affiliated with Syracuse University was proposed by Donald Schupak, a New York City investment banker who graduated from SU’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1964 and College of Law in 1966. At the time, SU was looking for ways to raise its profile in New York City. The University responded favorably, and Schupak’s idea took hold with the cooperation of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Professor William Coplin, who would help shape HSLAPS’s curriculum. The new partnership would allow the high school to offer special courses, including a public policy course modeled on Coplin’s SU course. In addition, SU would provide the school with interns each semester to help teachers and to share their college experiences with the students.
As it happened, the timing was right for Schupak’s idea because the New York City school system was undergoing changes. The prevailing educational theory was to break down the concept of large neighborhood schools because students were falling through the cracks. The system was so overburdened that many schools were forced to hold split sessions, and “that tears the heart out of a school,” Gilligan says. “The idea was to create smaller academic schools that were more like a community.”
The city decided to open about 30 theme schools, but that did not mean elite schools catering only to the best and the brightest. Instead, a democratic process was used to fill the schools, based on eighth-grade reading test scores. Each school was required to have 16 percent of its students among those who achieved above-average test scores; 68 percent, average scores; and 16 percent, below-average scores. “We had the opportunity to accept 50 percent of our students from among those who met the guidelines,” Gilligan says. “The other 50 percent were randomly assigned by lottery.”
There were plenty of problems that first year. For instance, the school was scheduled to open on 15th Street and First Avenue—on the site of the old Stuyvesant High School—but the project director resigned before arrangements were completed, leaving the school and students without a building. The displaced school ended up finding space in the same building as the High School for Economics and Finance, next door to the building where HSLAPS is now housed. “We were stepchildren that first year,” recalls Gilligan.
First-year problems escalated well beyond those of sharing space with another high school. “Anytime we needed to send a student somewhere, it had to be a ninth-grader,” Gilligan recalls with a smile. “This included the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee. Our student government president was a ninth-grader; the editor of the school newspaper was a ninth-grader. But these students got in on the ground floor, and the situation influenced our thinking to the point that now we don’t believe these positions are solely for seniors.”
The next year, a new class was admitted and enrollment doubled to 200 freshmen and sophomores. “We doubled our teaching staff, and we had four floors,” Gilligan says. “We also set up a weight room for the kids.”
The third year, the school had 300 students—freshmen, sophomores, and juniors—and finally moved into its own building next door, which had previously housed professors from the New York University Leonard N. Stern School of Business. The new building had 14 floors, and presented a completely different environment for the students. “That first year, when we were on only two floors, we’d see the kids 10 or 15 times a day, so it was easy to spot the goof-offs,” says Gilligan. Now each department had its own floor, which was good for sharing ideas among teachers. But it also meant the students could sometimes “get lost” in the building, making it more difficult to keep tabs on them. And there were other things to get used to. “The elevators weren’t renovated, and they became entertainment vehicles,” Gilligan says. “The students would use them even if they only had to go up or down one floor. And then, because the elevators were old, they’d often get stuck.”
Today, those problems are in the past. Now, there are 560 students and 33 teachers, and the problem has changed from one of too few students to too many. This past year, there were 1,400 applications for a freshman class of between 150 and 200. “People have heard of us,” Gilligan says.
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